Thursday, June 29, 2017

Is Sky TV's golden era coming to an end?

(A slightly abbreviated version of this column was first published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail on June 28.)

I’m feeling very on-trend at the moment, to use a fashionable expression.

I recently watched series one of the TV drama Twin Peaks for the first time. It originally screened on American television in 1990.

Okay, so it took me a while to get around to seeing it. Geoffrey Palmer was prime minister when it was made and Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge of the Soviet Union. But hey, you can’t rush into these things.

I now feel I’ve eliminated an embarrassing deficit in my cultural education, because Twin Peaks is one of those programmes that everyone who professes to be even vaguely hip has seen so many times that they can mouth the script in sync with the actors.

It’s commonly described as a cult series, which is usually a polite way of saying that a handful of arty critics raved but it was a commercial flop.

In fact series one was a ratings success. According to Wikipedia, it’s commonly ranked – in America, anyway – as one of the 50 greatest TV dramas of all time. It was only when the producers tried to stretch an already thin plot into a second series that it failed.

Twin Peaks is ostensibly a murder mystery, but to use that description is like saying Moby-Dick is a story about a fishing trip. The programme’s appeal hinges not on its storyline but on deliciously quirky characters and surreal situations.

For the 50-minute running time of each episode, you basically enter an alternative universe – the fictional logging town of Twin Peaks in Washington State – where almost everyone is seriously weird and nothing makes much sense.

The hunt for a sex killer soon becomes almost incidental as the series veers into a soap opera-style exploration of the convoluted lives and relationships of the town’s inhabitants. For all that, it’s strangely – you might almost say hypnotically – riveting.

Alas for the producers, quirky characters and surreal situations can get you only so far. By series two the weaknesses in the meandering plot were becoming all too obvious. I gave it away after just two episodes.

I see that a third series recently premiered in the United States, 27 years after the first. It includes several of the original cast members. One critic described it as “weird and creepy and slow”. So… not much has changed, then.

Why am I writing about Twin Peaks? Simply because the fact that I was able to watch it on demand, streaming it on my “smart” TV nearly three decades after it was first screened, illustrates the revolutionary changes in our TV viewing patterns.

Historically, television viewing in New Zealand can be roughly divided into three phases.

For the first 15 years, from 1960-1975, we watched one state-owned channel. Television then was a great social unifier, because everyone watched the same programmes – Peyton Place, Bonanza, Coronation Street, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Studio One, Star Trek – and talked about them the next day.   

Even when a second channel was introduced, it was still state-owned. There was more choice but the diet remained essentially the same.

It wasn’t until broadcasting was deregulated by the Labour government in 1989 that a private competitor, TV3, entered the market. But the real game-changer was the arrival of pay television with the launch in 1990 of Sky TV.

Sky TV was a perfect example of what is now known as a disrupter, using technology and a new business model to lure viewers away from the traditional free-to-air channels.

Its arrival heralded the end of television as an agent of social cohesion, because viewers were now presented with a wide range of viewing options. The days when virtually the entire population watched the same programmes were gone.

Crucial to Sky’s strategy was the acquisition of monopoly rights to screen major sporting events – a licence to print money in a sports-mad country. In this Sky was spectacularly successful, enabling it to become a dominant player in television – this, despite the company making virtually no contribution to the production of domestic programmes other than live sport.

Sky’s control of sport signalled the death of the egalitarian ethos by which all New Zealanders could share in the triumphs and disappointments of the country’s major teams.

There were now two New Zealands – the one that paid to watch the All Blacks or the Black Caps on Sky, and the rest.  People without Sky no longer feel the same engagement with national teams because they don’t get to see them play. I could trip over Sam Cane or Ryan Crotty in the street tomorrow and not recognise them.

But perhaps Sky’s golden run is coming to an end, because an even more potent disrupter has entered the market. I watched Twin Peaks on Lightbox and immediately before that I enjoyed Fargo – the TV series, not the movie – on Netflix.

I can stream television programmes using these services at whatever time of day I like and there are no commercial interruptions. Streaming elevates freedom of choice to a whole new level, and suddenly Sky TV is looking very much like yesterday’s technology. How very sad.

Sky still controls major sport, of course, and showed its arrogance and greed on Saturday night by broadcasting a commercial when we should have heard the British national anthem before the Eden Park rugby test.

I will dance on Sky’s grave, metaphorically speaking, if and when it loses its stranglehold.  It would be poetic justice if it was brought down by the same process of technological disruption that enabled it to thrive in the first place.

FOOTNOTE: Alert readers will notice an error in this column. I was wrong about Sky playing a commercial over the "British national anthem" before Saturday night's rugby test. A moment's thought would have told me they couldn't play God Save the Queen with Irishmen in the Lions side. Several commenters on Stuff certainly let me know about my mistake. I've left it in as a lesson to myself to be more careful in future.


granddad said...

I don't have Sky but watch the tests at 9.30pm on Prime. No big deal!!

John F. said...

Hi Karl,
Completely off-topic but I’d really enjoyed reading your book “A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis”.

I’d never heard of most of the songs you’d listed (pardon my ignorance: my general music knowledge is really poor) but the info on the songwriters and singers, the impact of the songs on American music at the time, and your descriptions of the towns and ways of life in the different regions was fascinating.

I did many google searches to hear the songs mentioned in your book so it had prompted an interesting little music education for me.

Hope that volume 2 really is in the works!

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks John. It's extremely gratifying to get comments like yours. Especially pleasing to hear you enjoyed the book even though you don't sound like a music buff. Volume II remains just an idea at this stage. I have a list of songs and places - I'm just waiting to summon the energy to hit the road again.